The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has made its debut in women’s soccer at this year’s Women’s World Cup, and while VAR can lead to confusing and controversial decisions, FOX Sports Rules Analyst Christina Unkel has been indispensable in making sense of all the madness.
Rules Analysts often aren’t a favorite part of the broadcast, and rarely do they stand out. FOX Sports used Dr. Joe Machnik in this role during last year’s World Cup to help viewers understanding the rationale behind some of the calls made by officials and the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), so the presence of a Rules Analyst isn’t new territory for football fans in the United States. NFL fans are even more familiar with this part of the broadcast, as replay has been an essential part of American football for years.
However, few people have excelled in this role quite like 2019 Women’s World Cup Rules Analyst Christina Unkel, whose lucid and insightful explanations of often esoteric rules have added immensely to the FOX Sports broadcasts. She is almost always correct in her evaluation of a situation, with her decision commonly matching VAR’s decision. This makes her analysis even more pertinent, as viewers can also understand why the actual match official made her call.
VAR and replay are supposed to make football more straightforward, but they often add layers of confusion to the calls on the field. This is the cost of trying to be as accurate as possible, and the final decisions can even confuse players who have competed at the highest level, such as FOX Sports commentator Aly Wagner.
Take, for example, the penalty awarded to the USWNT against Chile. Left forward Christen Press lofted a ball from a set piece into the penalty box that harmlessly bounced out of bounds for a goal kick. However, fans were notified of a lengthy VAR check for a penalty that led to the match official reviewing the play. The replay showed that Lindsey Horan was fouled near the edge of the penalty area, but it seemed like the foul occurred outside the box.
To the shock of the announcers and most people watching, a penalty was awarded. As Unkel explained succinctly, the foul was an upper-body foul, and the contact between defender’s and attacker’s upper bodies occurred on the line. Since the line is part of the penalty box, a penalty is awarded.
Whether or not a viewer or analyst takes issue with the rules itself is irrelevant. Unkel and officials must go by what the rulebook says, explain the rules to the viewer and make the appropriate call. While it was a surprising decision and Wagner was critical of Unkel’s opinion (which proved to be the call on the field), that is indeed what the rules state.
Unkel had a similarly clear and insightful explanation of Australia’s game-winning own goal against Brazil in a defining 3-2, come-from-behind victory. While Australia star striker Sam Kerr was indeed offsides, the header from Brazil defender Monica didn’t come while she was under pressure from Kerr. If Kerr were involved in the play and interfering, the goal would have been overturned. But because Monica was behind Kerr and had a chance to either not play the ball or head it anywhere besides her own net, the own goal had to stand.
The explanation from Unkel surprised the analysts and some fans, but she clearly broke down the process by which the goal had to be upheld. In doing so, Unkel helped shed light on the complexities of the offside rule to viewers, educating more fans about one of football’s basic but most complex rules, especially when an attacking player is offsides but does not directly get a touch on the ball.
Now, Unkel’s ability to deftly explain the rules and the nuances of the game shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows her background. Aside from being a Rules Analyst for FOX Sports and a FIFA match official, Unkel is a practicing attorney in the fields of sports law and complex civil litigation. So in a sense, explaining the game to football fans is relatively simple compared to what she does as an attorney and even as an entrepreneur. Unkel is the co-owner of two fitness companies.
This World Cup marks the first time VAR has been used in women’s football, so this is new territory for everyone involved. As Alexi Lalas explained, the players themselves must adjust to the new style of play (the penalty call in France vs. Norway best exemplifies this), the officials have had to quickly learn how to navigate this complicated system and both analysts and fans alike are having to interpret the rules differently.
Because of the fine margins and the attention of detail needed to the intricacies of FIFA’s rules, it’s only fitting that someone with a background in law is the one breaking down the calls directly to the viewers.
It can be easy to overlook Christina Unkel’s role on the FOX Sports broadcast, and it can be just as easy to misdirect anger towards someone who is merely interpreting the rules as they are written. But the fact that Unkel has correctly predicted the outcome of so many controversial calls is one measure of her astuteness.
The other? Her ability to provide streamlined explanations to confused viewers in an enlightening manner. It feels like even the most seasoned of football fans have picked up something new just by listening to Unkel for a brief minute out of 90.